Ward Churchill has made the claim to be Indian more disputable and disreputable than ever before. Worse than the “African’ Americans who claim to be Mashantucket Pequot in order to benefit from the great Connecticut casino, Churchill claims to be Indian to emphasize his own anti-American agenda. He has used a life-long fabricated association with Indians to create a political career, which he otherwise could never have achieved. In view of such fraud, it is high time to examine just how one is identified as an Indian these days, and just how it is that someone like Churchill could claim to be Indian, undisputedly, for decades.
First of all, Indian identity as a legal status is in the hands of the government. Only a federally recognized body of Indian people has that status. Of course, the Indian casino boom has blurred the requirements of federal recognition, or at least the definition and application of those requirements. Indian casinos have brought into question the reputability of the Bureau of Indian Affairs when recognizing new tribes today. Under enormous financial and political pressure, the BIA continues acknowledge tiny groups who, with federal recognition, can produce enormous gambling revenue. The contemporary group’s historical relations are no longer essential.
Secondly, there is significant precedence for confusion and uncertainty regarding Indian identity. Particularly is this true in Indian Territory, which later became the state of Oklahoma (1906). It is precisely this century-old ambiguity in Oklahoma that afforded Churchill the opportunity to make the effective claim he has.
Being Indian was hardly an advantage back then. Though there were treaties which guaranteed land and provisions for Indian people, the experience of many Indians with broken treaties caused them to have deep distrust. Some Indians came to believe that they would actually better off not identifying themselves as Indian at all. Being Indian might get them a small allotment of land, but it was like being imprisoned in a land ghetto. Some Indians actually refused to enroll themselves as members of their tribes.
Much of this can be traced directly to the Dawes Act of 1887. The reservations were to be divided up into individual land allotments, given to heads of families. Congressman Henry Dawes believed that private property was the key to induce “civilization” in Indian people. To be civilized was to "wear civilized clothes...cultivate the ground, live in houses, ride in Studebaker wagons, send children to school, drink whiskey [and] own property."
Obviously, many Indians did not wish to be “civilized,” (except maybe for the whiskey part). To be a legally enrolled member of a tribe meant to be further subjugated than they already were. The fact is many Cherokee people, even full-bloods, did not enroll.
Ironically, today, the Cherokee Nation has no blood quantum requirements for membership. To be recognized as a member, one proves genetic relations with someone who was in fact enrolled during the 1899-1906 census. That is the sole requirement. This is why there are so many “white” people who are members of the Cherokee Nation today, and why many real Indians are not. It was all about law and land.
Interestingly, Ward Churchill never sought membership in the Cherokee Nation. Though he claims his mother was Cherokee, she apparently wasn’t on the 1899-1906 rolls. The Keetoowah Band of Cherokee however, a separate and federally recognized group (as of 1950), offered Churchill a chance to make good his claim. Although their membership requirement was enrollment on the 1949 lists, which Churchill and family apparently weren’t, the Keetoowah were issuing “honorary” tribal membership cards in the 1990’s, and Churchill got his then, the same year Bill Clinton got one. John Ross, chief at the time, later decided the program was inadvisable, and in 1996, all such memberships were revoked, and the records were destroyed. This, according to Keetoowah tribal employee Marilyn Craig, is the state of affairs.
Churchill doesn’t believe in blood quantum requirements anyway. “You don't measure identity by either pounds or percentage points unless you're some kind of Nazi,” he said in 1994.
Always concerned about Nazis, this Ward Churchill, but it’s clear he is functionally anti-Indian, as well as anti-American. According to Churchill’s definition, you’re Indian if you want to be. It’s about knowledge, culture, and tradition. It’s a like a religion. It’s not a race at all. Churchill despises Indian blood.
This is truly outrageous. Ward Churchill has made a career out of accusing the United States of committing genocide against Indians and other minorities, but he advocates the non-existence of the Indian race. Sounds like a genocide to me.